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Free-flowing Ubuntu social bot speaks astronauts at the International Space Station

A Ubuntu-powered social robot called CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile CompaniON) has begun working at the International Space Station. Self-navigating bot…

A Ubuntu-powered social robot called CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile CompaniON) has begun working at the International Space Station. Self-navigating bot recognizes faces and answers questions forwarded to a land-based IBM Watson computer.

A social robot with a Ubuntu OS has launched at the International Space Station (ISS) to answer astronaut questions by voice and an 8-inch display. On November 15, the German astronaut demonstrated the Alexander Gerst CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile CompaniON) robot in action, revealing face recognition, voicemail and ability to autonomously navigate the ISS’s weight-free environment. CIMON can also play music, document results of experiments, or search for objects using its image recognition capabilities.

CIMON on ISS with Alexander Gerst
(click on images to enlarge)

The 3D-printed robot is designed jointly by the German space organization DLR together with Airbus. IBM delivers the basic IBM Watson supercomputer that answers questions forwarded via CIMON. There are also contributions from Ludwig Maximilian University Hospital in Munich and the University of applied science and art of Lucerne, Switzerland.

Robonaut 2

Unlike NASA’s former Ubuntu-driven Robonaut 2 (R2) – a humanoid bot that has performed missions on ISS – CIMON lacks attachments and can not perform any physical work. (This seems to offer a suitable alibi for the mystery hole located beside a Russian module connected to ISS.)

Unlike R2, CIMON can navigate with a series of fans and it’s chatty and super smart thanks to the Watson connection. CIMON avoids the need to ivnteract with a floating laptop while the astronauts are free to work. CIMON is also an experiment to see if social robots can help ward off the loneliness of isolated space travelers.

The almost spherical CIMON actually looks like Wilson, the volleyball, who held the Tom Hanks firm in the movie “Cast Away.” But in the first of the two videos further below, he seems to share some of the petalance and sensitivity of the HAL 9000 computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. (Soon it will be safe to read lip.)

During Gerst’s demonstration, CIMON successfully searched and recognized Gerst’s face, then answered questions and took pictures and videos. It also offered instructions for performing a student-designed experiment with crystals.

As other voicebots ranging from Alexa and Google Assistant to the voters found on social robots like One, Pepper, iPal or Jibo, CIMON can translate spoken words to text and back again. Like most voice platforms, it sends it to a cloud AI platform. CIMON (left) and its Ubuntu-powered display
(click on images to enlarge)

The CIMON WiFi signal is connected to the ISS satellite communications link, which sends the question to the Biotechnology Space Support Center in Lucerne. A second connection relays data to an AI-enhanced IBM Watson computer in Frankfurt, Germany. The other video below indicates that CIMON may also work to some extent without the Watson connection, and that Watson can improve the response to the local Ubuntu computer. Nevertheless, its conversational skills and intelligence would probably be limited without Watson.

Back in July, when CIMON was launched in space, OMGUbuntu Ubuntu saw the job on CIMON’s 8-inch screen, showing an animated face when no information was displayed otherwise. According to a November CIMON news release, 5-kilo cages use two face cameras while five additional cameras are used for orientation and video documentation. There is a speaker and an 8-microphone set for directional recognition as well as a directed speech recognition microphone.

A dozen internal fans allow CIMON to move at 1 meter per second and rotate in all directions. “CIMON can turn to a certain astronaut when addressed, nick or shake his head and follow the astronaut, independently or on command,” says IBM.

CIMON is the second extraterrestrial Linux story in recent days. Also this week, Gumstix announced that the MarCO CubeSat satellites that followed the Mars Insight mission and confirmed the landing on Mars, integrate Linux-powered Gumstix Overo IronStorm-Y modules that control Gumstix Capa VL cameras.

CIMON in action on ISS

CIMON Overview Video
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